Now in its fifth year, the annual CiderFest NC takes place Saturday, Oct. 7, at Salvage Station. The event serves as the primary yearly fundraising event for the Green Built Alliance, formerly the Western North Carolina Green Building Council. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on the local cider industry — one that’s grown to the extent that new types of business models and specialty stores have emerged alongside national and state associations, helping established and new producers better educate consumers and grow their brands.
Chris Heagney studied brewing at Brewlab in Sunderland, England, and was initially exposed to cider at a beer festival in Newcastle. When he returned home to the U.S., the Connecticut native switched gears and pursued work in the cider industry because he felt that there was far more to cider than what was currently being offered in America. A position at Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider in Portland, Ore., soon led to a promotion as lead cidermaker in a nearly ideal setting.
“The Pacific Northwest has a great cider community, and I was very lucky to be part of that scene in its early days,” Heagney says. “I learned so much at Reverend Nat’s about not only the technical processes of cidermaking but also the creative process of writing recipes and blending flavors.”
Attracted to the industry’s great potential for creativity and growth, and feeling he had ideas worth realizing when it came to ciders, Heagney decided to go out on his own largely for the creative freedom to produce those beverages.
“There is still so much that has not been studied or experimented with. Many people try to box it into a ‘wine’ or ‘beer’ category, which, while sometimes appropriate, is limiting. Cider has its very own culture and science, one that is fascinating and relatively unexplored,” he says. “I am constantly seeking new approaches to cidermaking and pulling influence from different cultures and industries.”
After moving to Asheville in early 2016, Heagney got to work forming Daidala Ciders. In the tradition of gypsy breweries like Mikkeller that have produced top-notch beers all over the globe and had a large impact on the brewing community, he’s opted to make small batches at other cideries around North Carolina as a “nomadic” cidermaker, a term he feels is a better fit for the cider world than “gypsy.” As far as Heagney knows, there are no other cidermakers who follow that model, a fact that surprises him.
Daidala’s initial batches have come out of Red Clay Ciderworks in Charlotte and run between 50 and 250 gallons. Using other facilities’ equipment and space allows Heagney to keep the batch sizes small and reduces his overhead so that he can experiment with flavors and ingredients that some cidermakers might avoid because of expense or other factors.
Beyond the generosity of brick-and-mortar establishments in this regard, Heagney says he’s had strongly welcoming experiences with the industry peers he’s met thus far. Most cidermakers have been open about their methods and apple sources, and he’s spoken with a few cider producers about working together to acquire certain varieties of apples.
He’s experienced a similar warmth among business owners, with whom he regularly has substantial conversations about how each cider is made and what goes into them. He says he’s felt nothing but support from Asheville partners, from Bruisin’ Ales and Tasty Beverage Co., which were some of the first to put Daidala bottles on their shelves, to Sovereign Remedies, one of the first restaurants to carry his product. He’s hoping for similar positive interactions at his first CiderFest.
“Right now, we are really focused on getting our name and brand out there in front of consumers, which means connecting with the cocktail bars, restaurants and bottle shops that serve to those consumers,” Heagney says. “I think we have a worthy product that people will enjoy immensely, but they have to know it’s available.”
The cider bar
Cider’s popularity has reached the point that opening a bar in WNC that primarily serves the drink constitutes a smart business idea. TreeRock Social is slated to open in late fall at 760 Biltmore Ave. across the street from Appalachian Vintner. The former Mr. K’s convenience store has undergone significant renovations, including a new roof, and will have room for 80 people.
Majority owner Kristy Stinnett says the bar will have 22 taps, two of which will be dedicated to wine. (Bottles of wine will also be available.) Of the remaining 20 taps, 60 percent will be occupied by ciders, the majority of which will be from local businesses.
“I’m seeing the growth of [cider’s popularity] throughout the country. Chicago — it’s taken off there. It’s taken off in California. And I just know so many people that are really starting to like getting exposed to cider right now,” Stinnett says. “There’s so many breweries here, which is great, but I’ve heard this from a lot of people: ‘I’m just tired of beer right now. I just want something different.’”
A longtime beer drinker, Stinnett quickly became a fan of the dry, traditional ciders made by Asheville-area producers. They will be represented at TreeRock, along with national and international ciders, namely those from France and Spain, which she says will be available in bottles at the very least.
Though Stinnett doesn’t have a gluten intolerance, many of her friends do, which she says further drives her niche selections. The creative curation also extends to TreeRock’s beer portfolio, which will focus on the region’s smaller breweries — including Olde Hickory Brewery, Sylva’s Innovation Brewing and Waynesville’s Boojum Brewing Co. — that she says aren’t widely available in local bars.
In addition, a pair of taps are reserved for the low-alcohol ginger beers from Asheville’s Ginger’s Revenge, and TreeRock will serve Zebulon Artisan Ales creations on tap as well as one very special product from the Weaverville brewery.
“When [co-owner] Gabe [Pickard] found out we’re six women who own the business, she got all excited,” Stinnett says. “She makes a low-sugar soda, so she’s going to make one that’s exclusively for us.”
True to its name, the decor of TreeRock will have earthy tones — a lot of reds and grays, plus a tigerwood bar top and sage-green walls to encourage a relaxing vibe. The outside area will have a patio area on one side and a grassy area on the other, with plans to eventually add a small stage in the corner for acoustic music shows. Stinnett also plans to have food trucks on-site, including a brunch truck on Sundays to take advantage of the new state law allowing businesses to serve alcohol as early as 10 a.m.
Apple season means business as usual for Black Mountain Ciderworks + Meadery. Launched in summer 2013 by Jess Puzzo Bowman and David Bowman, the cidery stays active this time of year pressing early fall apple varieties like McIntosh, Rome and Cortland until the supplies run out. But while area peers focus on wholesale growth and getting their product beyond the local market, the Bowmans take the opposite approach and make the pub atmosphere of their tasting room their priority.
“We work really hard to extract all the juice ourselves that we use, so it’s a little more difficult for us to want to part with what we make at wholesale prices versus what we can get here in the tasting room,” Puzzo Bowman says. “We really cultivate the right mental environment for cider because a lot of people don’t think they like cider because all they’ve had is really bad examples of cider. Out in the world, when you send your products out without a lot of information to go along with it, people can misunderstand what you’re trying to do, but in our own tasting room we make sure that’s not the case.”
Education often stems from customers stating that they avoid ciders because they’re too sweet. Though new patrons typically walk in thinking they want a dry cider, Puzzo Bowman says they frequently end up favoring something sweeter than anticipated, made with the non-overpowering sugars of honey, and leave with growlers of their favorites from the day. In between, the staff walks them through how the cider was made, including the incorporation of apples from the plentiful local orchards and the consequences of using nearby materials.
“Something we’re really concerned with is making sure people understand that the terroir of North Carolina cider is going to be different than Washington state or from the west country of England or from Normandy,” Bowman says. “Beer essentially tastes the same in California as it does in Michigan as it does in North Carolina. It’s all Canadian or European barley and Washington or Oregon hops. So, the Southern apples that we have here will really come through, and it’s going to be a fundamentally different experience than a cider from some other part of the country or the world.”
The Bowmans feel that being in a beer market encourages a greater willingness among customers to take chances on unfamiliar drinks and that it benefits Black Mountain Ciderworks to sell its products more like beer than wine, even if that approach breaks with industry tradition. Also like their brewery neighbors, the Bowmans constantly strive to improve their craft, specifically through autodidacticism and experimentation. Many new products have started out as small test batches that, if successful, have inspired larger batches. Time management has also improved.
“We’ve become a lot more efficient than we were when we started out,” Bowman says. “It’s just a practice thing: making mistakes the first time — or maybe even a second or third — and learning where energy was wasted and where it was well-spent.”
The Bowmans will probably bring a mead (honey wine) to CiderFest along with ciders that are unlikely to be found at other booths. Instead of the popular chai or peach cider, there’s a good chance they’ll pour a scrumpy — a rustic, country-style cider popularized in the west country of England that’s likewise found favor in the U.S.
Bowman notes that despite the bounty of ripe local apples in early fall, CiderFest’s timing can be a bit awkward for cidermakers. “It’s a curious thing being in October. It’s right in the middle of our production, and the ciders are actually going to be barely done at this point, but it’s kind of a break for us to go and share it with people that might not have had it before,” he says.
A piece of the national puzzle
Like the Bowmans, Noble Cider co-owner Trevor Baker prioritizes customer education in his taproom but finds reinforcement of that mission through his involvement with the U.S. Association of Cider Makers. Closing in on his third year of being on the organization’s board of directors, he serves as its vice president and chair of the marketing committee and helps with other committees as well.
Though a fledgling association, USACM’s rapid growth recently necessitated the nationwide search for a full-time executive director. Michelle McGrath was chosen to take on that role and runs the home office out of Portland, Ore., which — echoing Heagney’s sentiments — Baker calls “arguably the best place to be located for apples.”
USACM’s main focus is its annual CiderCon, which will be held Jan. 31-Feb. 2 in Baltimore. Previously held primarily in the more centrally located Chicago, the 2018 conference aims to attract more East Coast industry members with a special interest in working with distributors. The well-rounded conference also includes classes on yeast, the fundamentals of fermentation, orchards and other business-related matters, and has attracted well over 1,000 attendees each of the past two years who embrace being in a big tent association.
“There’s sort of this obvious divide in the beer world between big domestic and craft, and what does all that mean and how do you determine all that. With our association, we’re not large enough to have a schism in the industry, so we kind of all get together. We’ve got Angry Orchard [Hard Cider] and Woodchuck [Cider] and Bold Rock [Hard Cider] — sort of the big players in the market, nationally — mixed in with people that have 5 acres of apples and sell everything out of their barn,” Baker says. “We struggle to meet everyone’s needs because that’s a pretty diverse range of needs there, but it’s a good challenge. It’s what needs to happen, making sure everyone’s voice is heard.”
In addition to working on legislative issues, collecting data and doing marketing, USACM just launched its Certified Cider Professional program. Similar to the beer industry’s cicerone certification, though currently not nearly as in-depth, the level-one certification is primarily intended to educate anyone serving or selling cider on proper vocabulary and how to better inform consumers about the product. However, cider enthusiasts may also use its study materials and take the test.
Back on the local level, Baker has also been pivotal in launching the N.C. Cider Association, which recently passed its bylaws. And in conjunction with Nov. 18’s Txotxfest — named in honor of the barrel used to make Spanish cider, a specialty of Durham host Black Twig Cider House — a statewide Cider Week is also a strong possibility. For now, Baker says to “stay tuned for more info” as North Carolina cidermakers continue to gel as an organized group.
WHAT: CiderFest NC
WHERE: Salvage Station, 468 Riverside Drive
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 7. $15-$50. ciderfestnc.com